Weakened Netanyahu likely to serve a 3d term

Centrist party surprises with strong showing

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated in Tel Aviv, but his party lost seats in Parliament.
Oded Balilty/Associated Press
Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated in Tel Aviv, but his party lost seats in Parliament.

TEL AVIV — A weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged Wednesday from Israel’s national election likely to serve a third term, according to preliminary results and political analysts after voters on Tuesday gave a surprising second place to a new centrist party founded by a television celebrity who emphasized kitchen-table issues like class size and apartment prices.

For Netanyahu, who entered the race an overwhelming favorite with no obvious challenger, the outcome was a humbling rebuke as his ticket lost seats in the new Parliament. Overall, the prime minister’s conservative team came in first, but it was the center, led by the political novice Yair Lapid, 49, that emerged newly invigorated, suggesting that at the very least Israel’s rightward tilt may be stalled.

Lapid, a telegenic celebrity whose father made a splash with his own short-lived centrist party a decade ago, based his campaign on issues that resonated with the middle class, including the need to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army and the workforce.


Perhaps as important, he also avoided antagonizing the right, having not emphasized traditional issues of the left, like the peace process. Like a large majority of the Israeli public, he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is skeptical of the Palestinian leadership’s willingness to negotiate seriously; he has called for a return to peace talks but has not made it a priority.

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On Tuesday, Netanyahu implored his supporters to turn out, reading signs that voters were not embracing his message of security and his party’s conservative agenda. The day ended with Netanyahu reaching out again — this time to Lapid, offering to work with Israel’s newest kingmaker as part of the ‘‘broadest coalition possible.’’

Israel’s political hierarchy is only partly determined during an election. The next stage, when factions try to build a majority coalition, decides who will rule, how they will rule, and for how long. While Lapid has signaled a willingness to work with Netanyahu, the coalition may bring together parties with such different ideologies and agendas that the result is neither a shift to the right nor the left, but paralysis.

Still, for the center, it was a time of celebration.

‘‘The citizens of Israel today said no to politics of fear and hatred,’’ Lapid told an upscale crowd of supporters that had welcomed him with drums and dancing. ‘‘They said no to the possibility that we might splinter off into sectors, and groups and tribes and narrow interest groups. They said no to extremists, and they said no to antidemocratic behavior.’’


With 99 percent of the vote counted Wednesday, Israel Radio reported that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud-Beiteinu ticket was poised to take 31 of Parliament’s 120 seats. Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid — There Is a Future — garnered 19, far more than polls had predicted.

The right wing and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition combined for 60 seats, according to Israel Radio, equal to the total won by the center, left, and Arab parties, pushing the prime minister toward a partnership with Lapid and perhaps some of the groups that had been in the opposition. The left-leaning Labor Party took 15 seats and Jewish Home, a new religious-nationalist party, 11.

The prime minister called Lapid shortly after the polls closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday and, according to television reports, told him that they had great things to do together.

Lapid said he was open to working with Netanyahu, saying the only way to face Israel’s challenges was ‘‘together.’’

Netanyahu, 63, is Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister, after the state’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, having served from 1996 to 1999 and then again since 2009.


Analysts said he had virtually ensured his victory as the campaign had begun by uniting his Likud Party with the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned as foreign minister last month after being indicted on a charge of fraud. But it was mostly downhill from there: The joint list fell far short of the 42 seats the two parties hold in Parliament, which specialists attributed both to supporters’ confidence in Netanyahu returning to the premiership — leaving them feeling freer to cast ballots elsewhere — and a series of tactical errors.